Why midfield maestros were key for Celtic’s win over Rangers

Tom Rogic celebrates after opening the scoring at Ibrox. Picture: SNS/Bill Murray
Tom Rogic celebrates after opening the scoring at Ibrox. Picture: SNS/Bill Murray
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Fully aware of the gulf which currently exists between the two sides, Rangers fans would have reluctantly agreed before kick-off
that a narrow defeat full of endeavour and fight was at least an improvement on last season’s displays under Pedro Caixinha. And that’s what they got. Sort of.

It wasn’t quite the 5-1 hammering where Celtic exploited a startlingly attack-minded Rangers XI by constantly drifting by them with ease, nor was it the Scottish Cup semi-final where Caixinha’s side were camped in their own half until Celtic took a 2-0 advantage. There was pressing, there were chances, but still not enough of either to truly satisfy the home crowd, who were given another reminder of Celtic’s superiority.

Prior to the game, the away support cheered each and every time the PA announcer read out a name from the home ranks. The applause could barely be described as sarcastic. After all, their supposed rivals have been giving them more pleasure than pain in recent years.

There is a huge difference in quality between the sides, a fact not helped by Rangers missing Lee Wallace, Bruno Alves and Wallace’s deputy Declan John from their defence. But the most alarming aspect of the defeat was that, while they played their part in the downfall, the patched-together back four weren’t the biggest culprits.

Ryan Jack, Graham Dorrans and Carlos Pena, a centre-midfield three constructed from scratch over the summer, didn’t show enough to indicate they’re the answer if Rangers want to get closer to their rivals.

Opposing counterparts Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong and Tom Rogic basically had it their own way throughout the opening 25 minutes. Dorrans couldn’t get anywhere near Armstrong, often allowing the former Dundee United playmaker to spray passes about from deeper positions or run into the home penalty area unchecked. Similarly, Rogic often found pockets of space between the lines, and even when Jack got close to the powerful Australian, it was a physical mismatch. Pena, meanwhile, tried his best to stay with Brown, but as his meagre energy levels dropped he became missing in action. By dominating the area, Celtic were able to construct wave after wave of attacks, though some dogged defending enabled Rangers to keep the score level, at least for a while.

On the 26th minute, Armstrong went through Josh Windass near the halfway line. It was the type of challenge typical of an Old Firm but one which the home side hadn’t made to that point. Ironically, that foul, and Craig Thomson’s generous decision to keep his yellow card in his pocket, fired up the home players and they started competing. Jack began snapping at the heels of Rogic, Dorrans got tighter to Armstrong, and even Pena knocked Brown on his backside at one point.

It was Rangers’ brightest spell in the match, with Alfredo Morelos just missing a James Tavernier cross at the back post a short time later. Even then the hosts weren’t dominant, and Celtic continued to rack up the chances. With the route to goal through the centre getting increasingly congested, the visitors began to use the wing. As Windass, on the left, moved inside to assist those in the engine room, Patrick Roberts was able to isolate Lee Hodson, and twice got past the 
full-back to create opportunities as the half drew to a close.

The hosts couldn’t keep their intensity levels going after the break and it showed in both goals.

With Dorrans again chasing his shadow, Armstrong was instrumental in winning the corner from which Celtic would open the scoring. Then substitute Callum McGregor was able to latch on to a Mikael Lustig knockdown without a Rangers player anywhere near him. He moved it to Roberts, who threaded a pass through for Leigh Griffiths to finish the match as a contest.